If You Want To Go To Graduate School (Part 14)

I’m skipping ahead a bit to part of my first year in graduate school, which took place during the September 11th year.

Tuesday, September 11, 2001
I started my day and went to the University like any other day. I spent much time at the University and I went there to do some computer work for a workshop submission. I had a G3 tower at home, but the new G4’s were somewhat more powerful and there were laser printers at the faculty technology center. Since I worked for Joe, he wrote a letter to the center to give me access. I often abused my priveleges, and this morning was no exception.

I used the scanners and Photoshop to get my images at the right resolution, plunked them into a Microsoft Word file, and formatted the text around them. The G4’s RAM certainly could handle it. My beige G3 at home was a bit slower, and it would take me forever to do them. Plus, there were all the other people at my mother’s house to deal with – my brother, my mother, and sometimes her friends. There was also the temptation of the television – something I had to escape in order to get things done. Once I had the TV turned on, anything I hoped to get done was over.

Since I did not watch TV that morning or listened to the radio, I had no idea what had happened. I heard no mention of it on the bus on the way to the University. A television was set up on a table in the faculty technology center, but I paid no attention to it. Somehow, it didn’t strike me as strange that a TV was on in that room. After logging in, I sat down at a computer and began working. As I sought to get the right fit of an image on a page, I heard comments about a terrorist strike on the US and that these terrorists would not be coddled. I soon inferred that the strike occured in New York City. Even with the news broadcasting, everyone in the lab worked on their projects, even while they were listening. It was not until there was an announcement from Governor Gray Davis that everyone stopped. He announced that all California state institutions would be closed immediately.

The center’s administrator got everyone to leave at that moment. I took the elevator up to where the English Department was. I don’t know why I did this. Perhaps I hoped to see one of my new grad school friends to talk about what’s going on. I saw that some professors had not been notified and they were still carrying on, teaching their classes or sitting in their offices. I couldn’t find anyone, so I went to the campus bus station to go home,

There were many people waiting to take the bus. The buses arriving to or leaving campus were rarely full, but they were packed this day. I saw Malcom, the administrative assistant for the English Department, and chatted with him. I told him I knew this day would go down in infamy, like Pearl Harbor. I’m sure many other people were thinking the same thing. We waited for a crowded bus, boarded one, and left the campus.

My friend Liza Radley, whose birthday I would later learn was September 11, was aboard. She really hadn’t made an impression on me yet. What I remember of her was different from the Liza I would later come to know, the outgoing, intense, and gregarious girl with many friends. She was still new to the city and quiet. But we shared a bus trip together on that day, when the everyone in this city and even the rest of the nation was sudddenly confused.

Malcolm and Liza would get off in one of the first stops away from campus, while I took the bus to uptown. I just had to eat. I found a Greek diner on 5th Avenue and set my tote down. I ate a gyros plate while the restaurant’s TV relayed more details of the news. Now I had a better idea of what happened. The World Trade Center had imploded because two airplanes crashed into the towers. Another plane crashed into the Pentagon, and another crashed in a remote field in Pennsylvania, though the intended target was speculated to be the White House. The nation’s borders were closed off, and no plane would cross the sky, coming or going, for the next few days. I found it disquieting that “Attack on America” had a logo, whipped up in a few hours. After lunch, I went to a cafe and had some coffee, where I heard more of the same news. I then took the bus back to my suburban neighborhood.

My mother was home along with Yoko. Yoko’s family, her ex-husband and her daughter, were also visiting. I think we may have sat down for a late afternoon meal, but I don’t remember for sure. I do remember every channel on the TV was broadcasting updated news of the attacks on the World Trade Center. My mother had planned a birthday party for my niece that day, but cancelled it a few days before and rescheduled it. My niece shared a birhday with Liza Radley.

I could not not take the news for long all day, so I went into my room and logged onto the Internet. I alternated between working on my personal website, going on websites, and e-mailing friends to make sure they were okay and replying to e-mails asking about me.

When I was in the sixth grade, I saw a documentary about Nostradamus entitled The Man Who Saw Tomorrow. The great Orson Welles was definitely memorable as the narrator. It was not a ground breaking accomplishment such as his War of the Worlds broadcast or Citizen Kane, but his presence was appropriate. Most of the film covered Nostradamus’s prophecies during his lifetime and what he wrote about the future. Historical events were brought side by side with his prophecies, so it seemed plausible that he predicted the rise of Adolph Hitler, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution in Iran. Then the documentary discussed the near future. Here, dramatized footage of a man in a blue turban walked around a military computer command center of an unidentified Middle-Eastern nation and ordered a missile to be launched at New York City. It had yet to happen, but terrorists from Arab nations were beginning to gain prominence in the media.

I went on the Nostradamus newsgroup and the board was filled with posts about September 11. Many simply discussed what was going on, while others wondered if this was the prophecy come true.

Whether the prophecy was true or not wasn’t important. However, I knew my life wouldn’t be the same afterwards. No one’s life would be, though waving flags would prove to be a wonderful distraction for a while.

If You Want To Go To Graduate School (Part 13)

I’m at the cafe across the street from where I live, having something to drink and taking advantage of the WIFI. I’m also listening to a streaming broacast of Leonard Cohen being interviewed on Fresh Air for inspiration. It’s been two days since I’ve posted, giving the blog a breather, but now I don’t feel like writing. But, here I am, and I’m going to post.

At the close of Joe’s two classes, Madness in Literature and the fiction workshop, there was a need to party. Somehow, I got on the MFA’s e-mail list and I went to someone’s graduation party at their home by the beach. It was a mellow party, with wine and cheese and some other good food. After it ended, everyone went go across town to an uptown dive bar. I don’t remember much of the party except that it was the first time outside of Joe’s classes I got to carry myself as a pseudo grad student. At this point, I was accepted into the program, but I was not officially one. It would also be the first of many parties in my MFA career.

Joe threw a party for his girlfriend Morgan, who just completed her BA in English. Most of Joe’s parties hardly had any food, unless someone else brought it. This was definitely true here, as Morgan’s parents supplied most of the food. Joe, however, did provide wine. I was happy for Morgan and got to chat with her a bit. I met her relatives. I also met one of Joe’s colleagues, Professor D.H. Ogden, a short, coarse-looking man who parted his hair to one side and wore tweed. I remember talking to him briefly, but it was easy to get it in my mind what kind of teacher he was. I easily pegged him as a stuffy, literary conservative. I would find that this view was utterly wrong as I went through my graduate career. I think Ogden’s one of the most misunderstood professors in the English Department at the university. More on that later.

I attended the graduation ceremony for the English Department at the university. I had gone through the ceremony the year before, and though I had satisfied the requirements for the BA and I would officially graduate, I did not walk again. I sat in the audience and watched Tomas and some of the other MFA’s I know walk across the stage to get the fake diplomas. I got to hear the top MFA give her speech – it would be the last time I would hear it. The custom was done away with by the time I would graduate with my MFA.

In the evening after the graduation ceremony, I went to Tomas’s graduation party, held at his home. I met his wife, the elegant Columbian woman, and his teenage children. Tomas’s wife went through a great deal of trouble to prepare the food and it was wonderful. There was an Afro-Cuban band playing, with a small dance floor set up in the living room. At one point, I danced to the drumming, though I’m not the greatest dancer. Joe loves to be hip to this kind of stuff, but he didn’t dance. He shook my hand for going out there and doing it.

Dr. Jules and his wife were at Tomas’s party. At one point, he apologized to me about being hard on me in the workshop. I replied I thought he was being hostile, but apology accepted. Given that, I still did not trust him. An apology does not always restore confidence. He would later use the constant attack and apologize strategy with another writer I knew in the program, though she took it much better. However, she really didn’t put much stock in his apology.

The summer was beginning and I would not get a break from Joe at all. The journal needed attention, after all.

To be continued…

If You Want To Go To Grad School (Part 12)

This post picks up where Part 11 left, exploring the writing workshop with Joe, AKA Professor Joseph K. Dr. Jules had managed to break my confidence. I also felt lost as a writer.

A young writer faces many challenges. The main challenge (which the others fall under) is the issue of material. Many young writers have not had much life experience, yet they absolutely want to write. No doubt they burn with energy and desire to create something and say something, to show others how they see things. Some have incredibly fertile imaginations, while others don’t. Many writers fall between the two. As a result, there is much experimenting to find one’s voice. One story form is tried after another, narrators change persons, characters become gay (or something else to make them interesting), attempts at cleverness are tried, and writers attempt to write in literary language. And a young writer is often not grounded to withstand other influences.

In the workshop, these influences are praise and criticism. It’s easy for a writer to become sloppy with her writing if she gets praise and little else. She may keep going, making the same crucial error after crucial error, because no one points it out to her. Praise is definitely a confidence booster, but it can also cause an ego trip. Criticism is an often misunderstood word. Criticism can (and often) comes across as tearing someone down. It’s associated with maliciousness and there is often malice by people who employ criticism in this manner. Ideally, criticism for the writer should be constructive, to help them make their works better. A good critic has an idea of what the writer is trying to say and addresses it.

I often received praise from Joe in the beginning. He praised me for my scholarship, my comments in class, and for my creativity in during the first half of the limbo year. It definitely raised my confidence. I’ve never been a good literary scholar. I wasn’t bad; I often received B+’s in literature courses and sometimes I had those moments where I wrote or said something highly original in those classes. Perhaps I wasn’t skilled in the language of literary analysis, I didn’t read the texts hard enough, or a combination of both. There was one case in undergraduate school where we had an essay quiz on Othello. I read the act, but a classmate came in and hadn’t. I gave her a synopsis of the act and then we took our quizzes. I got a B and she got an A. It was through sheer imagination she got through the quiz, and it made me wonder if some “A” students in literature were better at talking their way through it. Given this, I had managed to impress Joe in his literature courses. I always knew I was higher in the creative side, but had little confidence. Often, my fellow students did not get what I was trying to do with the stuff I presented in workshops. Sometimes the teacher didn’t get it either. Joe seemed to grasp what I was about when I first presented a story to him. Or did Joe simply form an idea that he had about me?

So, when I presented the work that amended my portfolio, Joe had high praise for it. He even presented careful line edits. But this seemed to decline as the semester progressed. Joe never even sent me an in absentia response for the second story (reviewed by the class while he was away for a reading). When Gillian and I did an e-mail exchange using the personas of Edie Sedgwick and Valerie Solanis, he gave me a mixed response – I got Solanis’s obsessiveness but lacked the panache. His response to my third story was lukewarm. As I mentioned in the previous post, I did not take it well.

It was difficult to hear other writers get praised at this time, especially Harlan, Jill, and Dr. Jules. They weren’t great, but it seemed important to stroke these novices. Sometimes, this form of positive reinforcement can lead to disappointment. Joe praised the work of someone in a previous workshop and she sent it to the journal for consideration. I read the story, but I really didn’t like it. Since she knew Joe, I passed it on to him and he rejected it. I don’t know how she took it, but it certainly must have been a shock. Joe did give me helpful comments, but I don’t think I was really listening. Instead, I fought within myself about being jealous for cheap praise.

I mentioned in the previous post that Dr. Jules’s comments destroyed me. If a writer has little confidence, then it is possible to let the mean comments of others get to them. In one of his moments of wisdom, Joe told me that I shouldn’t worry about what others think of me. In Bonnie Friedman’s Writing Past Dark, she mentions a Chinese proverb that says if one worries about someone’s approval, then they are their prisoner. It’s easy to let the Dr. Jules of the world take us prisoner. Then there are people less malevolent than Dr. Jules, the peers of the workshop. If the story is written to meet their approval, then it ceases to be a story. It’s a stripped down version of the story. Regardless of how the criticism is delivered, a writer needs to be careful. A thick skin helps. But the ability to see if it is useful or useless criticism is more important.

It was hard for me to listen, to filter out what was helpful. It was also difficult for me to stay focused. I was busy commuting to an east county community college for a tutoring gig, doing whatever was needed with Professor K’s journal, and doing work for “Madness In Literature” seminar. There was no real time to develop studio habits. I was successful with a literary experiment, but how could I keep it up, once it demanded that I continue the story?

I think this is where the decline started. I don’t think I was being served as a writer. I was busy serving Joe. I knew Jackson was getting served and he was becoming friends with Joe. I felt I had to work to get Joe’s approval. Jackson didn’t. Or perhaps he was serving Joe by being in his orbit. I remember feeling resentful at one point, but swallowed it. Like any poision, the resentment would not go away. It was deep inside and it would only be a matter of time before I was aware of it again. But that was months away.

At the end of the semester, Tomas asked me to e-mail everyone to announce his graduation party. Holly sent me an interesting response. She joked that it seemed that Joe was farming out my services and that there should be a labor union set up for me. I chuckled, but a year later, I wished there was a union to mediate between Joe and me. And a year after that, I would help Stevie do the groundwork for a graduate student workers’ union at the University.

To be continued…

If You Want To Go To Grad School (Part 11)

The second semester of my “limbo” year” would define my relationship with Joe, AKA Professor K, and perhaps forshadow its decline. I had become so close to Joe so quickly. I had only barely known him for a year and I was housesitting for him. And then, my professional, academic, and writerly lives became tightly intertwined and were difficult to untangle from Joe.

The second semester of the limbo year was one where I took a fiction workshop and a graduate seminar entitled “Madness In Literature” from Joe. I also continued to work on a volunteer basis for his journal. I had keys to his office, so I had a place where I could hang my coat and leave the backpack behind when wandering the campus. It was also a quiet space where I could go to do some writing or read a book. I only had to do the things Joe asked me to do, and they never took too long.

I took the “Madness in Literature” course, scheduled on Tuesday evenings, mostly because of Joe’s subtle jealousy episode in December. I wanted to take Tatiyana’s workshop, which was also scheduled at the same time as Joe’s seminar, but Joe prevailed. Though I may lament the lost opportunity with Tatiyana, a few good things did come out of my enrollment in Joe’s class. However, I’ll get into that later.

But, I wanted to take a writing workshop, and Joe offered one on Thursday evenings. Joe had become acquainted with my writing from the Form and Theory class. Most of these were writing exercises, one of which evolved into a short story, which would later get published alongside Joe’s. Joe gave a space for me to break out of the mold that was set for writers. I never wanted to write in the “Iowa” style (which is prevalent in contemporary American “literary” fiction) and Joe’s interest in post-modern and outsider narratives seemed ideal. I was interested in making pictures and integrating them with writing. It was easy to see this inclination as post-modern. I would later see it as Romantic.

The workshop was a very small one. Tomas, Joe’s longtime assistant, was in his thesis semester and just taking the class to pass time. Holly, another longtime assistant of Joe’s, was also in her thesis semester. Holly was a Japanese-American who was quite focused on her writing. She had a slight speech impediment, but managed to make herself heard. Andrew, the quiet one, definitely spoke in this small group setting. Gillian, the hipster chick on her to middle-class motherhood, added some sass, wit, and humor to the class. She was definitely one of my allies in the class. Like me, she was not a graduate student, but developed a long-term writer relationship with Joe and also hoped to get into the program at one point. Harlan was a blond but bland southern California young man who was developing as a writer. His stylistic inconsistency would point to that. Jill, a graduate architecture student, took the class as an elective. She definitely seemed very suburban. Jackson, a famous runner in his prime, took to writing as a life change. He was an avid surfer and looked the part with his leathery skin and faded blond hair. Of course, Dr. Jules was in the class. Dr. Jules was a retired physician who started taking Joe’s classes on a lark. He then decided he wanted to be a writer and hoped to use his connection with Joe to get into the MFA program. He was a negative presence for sure.

During the first week of class, I wrote a sequel to my hybrid story. I remember writing it all in one day and submitting it for the second week of class. Like the previous one, this work was a series of pen drawings surrounded by crude calligraphy. There was a picture of a glove, the diva and her Elvis-like lover, and one where the diva would make Foxy Brown proud by kicking the offending psychiatrist’s ass. Joe and the class, with the exception of Dr. Jules, gave the story a good reception. Joe took it one step further. The English Department had my application packet for the MFA program, and Joe gave me permission to submit this recent work to amend my portfolio.

As the class progressed, I got to see everyone else’s writing styles. Gillian’s stories were ironic, humorous, and entertaining. Dangerous Liaisons comes to mind for some of them, translated in a more 21st century, urban context. Holly had the most literary style of anyone in the class. Tomas wrote stories based on his boyhood in Tijuana. Andrew had lots of energy and ideas, but hardly the depth and breadth to sustain them. His stories, though imaginative, were often unfinished, and his prose style was extremely slender. Everything Harlan brought to the workshop was an experiment. It was more the experimentation of someone who hasn’t developed his voice versus an artistic one. Jackson was interested in writing novels and was extremely verbose. His work, like an overgrown tree, needed heavy pruning. Jill became competent in the form of a story, though they were often boring. Dr. Jules was a marginally competent writer who dished out harsh criticism for most the class. However, he became a big fan of Gillian’s hipster intrigue stories. He was also very adversarial towards me.

With the two stories following the first story I submitted, I remembered Dr. Jules comments the most. With the second story, he e-mailed me a note explaining he could not show up to class along with a critique. It seemed thoughtful of him despite the harshness of the critique. However, he piously decided to come to class. I honestly hoped he wouldn’t come. Whatever constructive or helpful things were said before were cancelled out by Jules’s comments. Joe was not present for that session and I never received a critique from him. The third story I presented was written during one of my house sittings for Joe. It described the narrator’s trip to LA and his search for his diva while there. All the images were of things in LA, but the diva was absent. When Joe offered me a critique in his office before class, I got a bit defensive. I did not put up arguments with him, but I found it hard to listen to any critical comments he had to offer. He felt the work needed to go beyond its bathos or end. It’s a fair critique. Somehow, I took it as an attack and definitely felt attacked when Dr. Jules had offered his critique in class. He had e-mailed it to me as well.

I normally got a ride home after class from Tomas or Gillian. I took the bus home that night. During the ride, I read the printed e-mail over and over. One of my earlier creative writing teachers suggested putting the critiques aside and reading them a week later. It was like a Christmas present I couldn’t wait to open, I just had to read it even if the time wasn’t right. I obsessed over it; I even showed it to my brother. He didn’t think it was helpful at all and said it seemed like Dr. Jules was doing this to peck at me. The question was, why did I care about Dr. Jules’ opinion so much?

When talking with my friends about the workshops, Dr. Jules became this ridiculous old man whose unremarkable mind was incapable of understanding creativity. He was the archconservative voice in the class and would only praise things that were easy for him to comprehend. All of us on some level knew he was never going to be the target reader for a literary work. His thinking was too facile for that. However, he was loud and assertive. I should have recognized him for what he was – a bully. I subconsciously did – I had a lot of fantasies of my narrator’s diva beating him up real good. It wasn’t enough. I could hear his voice loud and clear in my head, even when I wasn’t reading his critiques. Dr. Jules became the personification of my doubts as a writer.

To be continued…

If You Want To Go To Grad School (Part 10)

In my last post, I introduced some of the people I met during the “limbo” year. There’s a few more. These people will definitely show up in future entries. All names have been fictionalized.

Dramatis Personae (Continued)
Natalie was only in the program for one year. She was strong and assertive and very charismatic. I could picture her doing these writing workshops on her own with the participants believing they could appropriate whatever talent she has. She was extremely disappointed with the University’s MFA program and decided to drop out after the term was over. When I told her I got accepted into the program, she cynically told me, “Good Luck.” I did not know how to take it. I would have plenty of time before her reaction made sense to me.

Andrew was a quiet one. He sat in the corner during the Form and Theory class and never said a thing. He was also very handsome, but stood with a slouch. He could be witty at times, but this hid the emotionally intense side of him. I would learn more about this during the following fall semester. He often wrote extremely brief stories with spare prose. Nothing would ever be longer than three pages, and I’ve often wondered how he would ever get a book done. Joe one time mentioned that Andrew rarely read and was surprised when he showed Andrew a book and he assumed it was a gift. Andrew was very geeky. He was very good at using computer technology (which made him useful to Joe), but he also knew as much about Star Trek as I did (and I know a lot). He could not get a girl to date him, despite his good looks. However, he had a steady girlfriend who was extremely dry and conservative.

Gillian wrote stories about hipsters, glitz, and glamour. I think that’s why we hit it off. She was a prolific blogger (before the term came out) and she almost posted every day on Live Journal. She was definitely an online diva with the readership to prove it. Unlike most online personalities, Gillian was outgoing, but subject to mood swings. She often was honest about what she felt in real life or on her blog. Like me, Gillian was attempting to transition from an undergraduate English career to a graduate writing career. She was also cultivating a writerly relationship with Joe and she even got her husband to meet him. She definitely kept me sane during the Joe’s spring semester writing workshop.

More posts to come. To be continued…

If You Want To Go To Grad School (Part 9)

In some of my previous hosts, I have discussed my relationship with Professor K. I’m not completely done with that. In writing about the “limbo” year, I must also write about the people I met.

Dramatis Personae
I met a variety of people in Joe’s classes during the limbo year. Some became my friends, others casual acquaintances, and some were potentially on the enemy list. Few of the people I met during that period I now count among my very good friends.

One of the first people I met was Tomas, my predecessor as the journal’s assistant editor, at Joe’s journal party. He was heavy set, middle-aged, and a bit gruff, but genuinely kind at the same time. Tomas spent many years driving buses and getting involved with various Latino art and poetry scenes. His marriage to a very elegant Columbian woman, a high school Spanish teacher, may have been his primary motivation for getting an MFA. Getting a BA had been an on and off thing for him, but he worked very steadily towards getting a masters, most likely to become more stable career-wise for his wife and children. He had reliably served as Joe’s right hand man for the past few years before I met Joe, but his time was coming to an end. Tomas needed to work on his thesis and became busy with family obligations. However, he did find time to take Joe’s classes.

Keenan and Elizabeth were friends of Tatiyana’s and became a part of my MFA career while they were in the program. Keenan was short and stocky, with hair that stood up rather than go down. Elizabeth had long, unstyled blond hair that hung down her back. Together, they were perceived as an artsy couple, but they were more than that. They were brilliant, and unlike many artsy people, they had discipline. I have never met people who so devoted to writing like them. Elizabeth was a partner with Tatiyana in a journal they founded together in the Pacific Northwest. For a while, they edited through correspondence, but now they were back together in San Diego for a while, they were able to work together. Keenan was the more scholarly of the two, but they both were incredibly well read. First, Joe threw us together in collaborative projects for Form and Theory, and then I got to know them during Henry O’Donough’s bar hours. Keenan and Elizabeth would become some of the most important readers of my work during my MFA career.

Julian Rosenthal was a seventy-something retired physician who audited Joe’s classes. Joe was fond of addressing him as Dr. Jules, and the moniker stuck. Everyone else in the class soon took to calling him that. Dr. Jules was critical of everything that Joe presented in the Form and Theory course, because Joe’s selections were extremely heterodox. The novels and short stories went against convention and reading them was never an easy ride at all. They were provocative, nonetheless, but they had little entertainment value for Dr. Jules. He often objected to the sexuality and the presence of cuss words in the works. He found them to be morally and artistically reprehensible and would not hesitate to say so at times. He could not get past the apparent sloppiness of the outsider artists, and it was funny when he referred to a work as disciplined (because of the technical skill). His criticism was not limited to the works we studied. When I housesat for Joe, I saw his journal among the stack collected at the end of the semester and looked through it. He was critical of Joe and his classmates, yours truly included. It was unnerving to see how he characterized me, but at least I came across as a person, whether I liked it or not. He simply characterized Stevie, a good friend of mine, as a homosexual. Dr. Jules was literal minded and was seen by all of us as a conservative voice in the class.

I had met Stevie two years before in an upper division Toni Morrison seminar. He was thin, blond, sweet, and unavoidably gay. We would only hang out during cigarette breaks, but not much beyond that. The following summer, I saw him at Gay Pride and chatted briefly. It was not until Joe’s Form and Theory class that I would get to know him. I got to know about his obsession with his namesake, Stevie Nicks. Sometimes, she was all he could talk about. It’s a common discussion threat up to this day. I would later learn about the others in his “diva pantheon” – Wonder Woman, Emma Peel, a Classics professor he knew at his undergrad alma mater, and one of the resident poets of the University’s program. An early conversation opportunity was when I was riding a bus to the University. Stevie dropped his car off to get repaired, and coincidentally he came aboard the same bus. We chatted, became better acquainted, and he later dropped me off at the grocery store where I worked. While I did not hang out with him much outside of class during the course of the semester, I would keep in touch with him after the class was over. We’re still very good friends today.

Lilia was a born-again Christian, but definitely not the garden variety Christian. While she was vocal about her faith and had theologically orthodox views, she was never glib. She often looked at Joe’s selections with her Christianity, but she was also open-minded enough to learn from them. Lilia had an earnest desire to create good and interesting art that expressed her beliefs. Apart from her religion, what informed her work were two things – she was Filipina-American and she was intimately acquainted with physical suffering. She often had a disorder that would redden her skin and then leave her pigment uneven. She was allergic to all kinds of food and found it safe to be on a vegan diet. I would later learn about some of her other issues through her writing. She was dating Erik, an alumnus of the MFA program, and they would soon get married. I became good friends with Erik through a professional relationship developed outside of the University.

“Dramatis Personae” to be continued…

If You Want To Go To Grad School (Part 8)

This was originally from Part 7, but I had to break it up as the post was extremely long.

The first half of the semester was spent teaching poetry. I took a lot of my poems from Barbara Drake’s book on teaching poetry, but I threw a few choices of my own too: Joe Brainard, William Blake, Allen Ginsberg, and even Dr. Seuss. It was definitely a challenge.

Apart from getting my students to read the works, I was forced to teach outside of my expertise. I have written poems and I knew a lot from the study of poetry, but my expertise was primarily in fiction. It forced me to read up, look up terms of poetry and the forms themselves. There were a few days I devoted to teaching the forms and I essentially became a math teacher. I tried to meter, rhyme, and the formulas for the forms, and it was like trying to teach algebra. How does one show the technical side of poetry without being dry? I did not want to create a bunch of formalist poets, but I felt it was important for them to know this stuff.

In addition, I had the students submit their poems for workshop. I tried having them submit the poems to the class website so that the writers would not go through the expense of copying the poems ahead of time. That did not work. I then had to go for the old fashioned photocopy for the entire class routine. I don’t think I was entirely successful in getting students to understand the schedule of the workshop. When workshops were successful, poems about relationships seemed to be the most common. Some students bemoaned the relationship poem. I defended the writer’s right to write about them and anything they wanted. If I were to teach creative writing again, I would still defend those writers.

Fiction was interesting. I initially thought I could rest upon my expertise as a storywriter, but it proved to be a bigger challenge than poetry. I did explain the technical aspects of the story, but it may have felt lost upon the students. Getting them to read the stories proved to be a bigger challenge than getting them to read the poems. There would be days where most of the students had not read the text. So, I resorted to a time-honored method employed by teachers – the quiz. I wrote simple quizzes and passed them out at the beginning of class. Some students showed that they did not read the story by their answers, some showed that they read it, and others showed a lack of attentive reading. The quiz certainly got some people’s attention, and one student claimed in an evaluation that the class “culminated into a brutally hard quiz.” Towards the end of the class, I learned from a lot of failed class discussions on how to point the material to make it a learning experience for them. When I taught “Revelation” by Flannery O’Connor, I made a worksheet by preparing four questions for my students to do as homework. I then used the worksheet to facilitate a class discussion, and one of my students sent me e-mail at the end of the day to tell me I did a good job teaching that story.

A lot, but not all, of the works were by gay authors or had a gay theme. While these works did not always have gay themes, their authors were gay: Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin, David Leavitt. To my knowledge, Ursula K. Le Guin is not a lesbian, but the short story I assigned, “Solitude,” had a lesbian theme. I had them go over two of the songs from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Some of my students resented this. I had an online discussion group set up for the class, and one student voiced her resentment in a post. She felt confronted by homosexuality in almost every work. Another student replied in agreement. When I got a copy of the class evaluations, I recognized the one by Mindy Shatner, though they were supposed to be anonymous. She was often hostile towards me in class. I often tried to figure it out, and the graduate advisor asked me if it could have been racial prejudice or homophobia. It was likely on the side of homophobia, as Mindy wrote in her evaluation that she was disturbed that every author was gay and that every story and poem had a homosexual theme.

On some level, I can understand the student who felt confronted with homosexuality in my assigned readings. However, I have often felt confronted with certain things throughout my life, whether in literature, cinema, or television. Literature has been presented as mostly white, male, and middle to upper class. In addition, it has also been presented as heterosexual. If the author were gay or lesbian, their sexuality was often played down. I never even knew gay authors or even non-white authors existed until I was in college. In movies and television, much of the world presented is a white, heterosexual one. It has gotten much better than the time when I was a child. At least now there are more prominent gay and non-white characters. But if the focus is gay or non-white, then the movie or television show winds up in some kind of ghetto. The same could almost be said for books.

In my defense, I did not have a “gay agenda” when it came to presenting these works. These stories and poems were for me examples of good and interesting writing. They were alive and not homogenous. They were varied in style and presentation. Chris Altacruise, a pen name of someone who criticized MFA programs in his or her article, felt American fiction was marked in its sameness of style and themes. I did not want to feed into that sameness. I hoped students would do works that reflected them. I hope I do work that reflect me, not my attempt to write like anyone else.

The summer after that first semester of teaching, I got a copy of the student evaluations. Some were exceedingly harsh, some were completely irrelevant, and some very helpful. I mentioned some of the harsh ones. There were a few others and reading them, I questioned my ability as a teacher. Some said things like the class was a waste of time or that I was a horrible public speaker. When I came across Mindy Shatner’s evaluation, I recognized it right away. The homophobia was clearly articulated and one of the things she wrote mirrored what she said during the confrontation – that she paid over $1000 to take the course and found it to be a waste of her time. Well, I certainly never got that $1000. I took a pen and wrote BUNDT* SNAP on the evaluation. I put it in the MEAN pile. I put the ones with stupid, irrelevant comments in the NOT HELPFUL pile. The few that were helpful pointed out both my strengths and weaknesses. The ones that praised me helped my spirit, and I definitely took to heart the ones that pointed out areas where I could improve.

I saw one of my students, the former Marine, on campus during the late summer. I told her about the bad evaluations and how it got me down. She told me that I wasn’t giving myself enough credit. She would not have thought about writing poetry if it were not for me. She also pointed out that one young woman, who wrote a humorous story about a fat teenager and her problems, kept going with the story in the next creative writing class. This young woman had discovered something uniquely hers and was definitely running with it.

*this is a made-up version of a cuss word, like Battlestar Galactica’s “Frak.”

More posts to come. Stay tuned.